The most famous party dress in New York history

AlicevanderbiltdressIt was the party of the century—the 19th century, that is.

Alva Vanderbilt, the super competitive wife of William K. Vanderbilt, was throwing a masquerade ball at her new Fifth Avenue chateau. On the guest list were the highest members of New York society.

While Alva Vanderbilt went as a Venetian Renaissance Princess and some of the 1,200 guests came as Daniel Boone, Queen Elizabeth, and Father Knickerbocker, her sister-in-law Alice upstaged everyone by showing up as “Electric Light.”

MCNYelectricdressHer stunning gown was made of white satin and trimmed with diamonds. It came with hidden batteries, so Alice could light up like a bulb.

Electricity was all the rage at the time—some streets were now illuminated with electric light, and Thomas Edison’s generating station on Pearl Street had opened the year before.

The ball wasn’t just another social event for rich New Yorkers. It was designed to gain Alva Vanderbilt acceptance into the city’s old-money society world, then ruled by Caroline Astor.

AlicevanderbiltelectricdressBy first denying Caroline Astor’s daughter an invitation to the ball, Vanderbilt forced Astor to pay her a social call and thus deem her worthy of the city’s social scene.

Alva’s plan worked, she officially joined New York society, and her ball became a legend.

The electric ball gown, meanwhile, joined the collection at the Museum of the City of New York, where it is on display now at Gilded New York.

[Top photo: Alice and her electric gown; middle, from the MCNY; bottom, Alice and her husband, Cornelius, who came to the ball as Louis XVI]

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9 Responses to “The most famous party dress in New York history”

  1. Goggla Says:

    I just happened to see a bit of a Historical Society documentary the other night that featured this dress. Then, today, I stumbled upon it in person at the Museum of the City of NY. Even today, it’s absolutely stunning. I can only imagine the impact it had at the time – and here we are still admiring it a century later.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Goggla. I saw it today at the MCNY. Definitely stunning…and so tiny! These society women were itty-bitty.

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    […] are some of the other outrageous and ostentatious costumes, including the battery-powered “electric light,” worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s […]

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